Fergal O’Brien has already beaten his previous best score for a season, reaping the benefits of a rock-solid racing education and move back to the familiar stomping ground
What brought you to England from your home in County Tipperary at the tender age of 14?
When I was 14 I spent a summer with my brother Brian, who was working for the Doug Francis stable in Cheshire. I then went home and back to school for a year before returning to Mr Francis, who sent me to the Racing School in 1989, by which stage I was 16.
I was lucky because I found myself mixing with a good group of students and being taught by some very able instructors. Though I have to say I have been disappointed with the results of the British Racing School since then. In my experience, these days not many of their students seem fit for purpose, I’m afraid.
You ended up working for three Grand National-winning trainers, Tim Forster, Ginger McCain and Nigel Twiston-Davies. In what way did your experience with three such revered professionals help you when you branched out on your own?
After my time at the Racing School I was sent to Captain Tim Forster, who always seemed pessimistic and a bit of a doom and gloom merchant. But that was just the way he was. I then found myself between jobs at Ginger McCain’s; I did enjoy myself at Cholmondeley, a lovely place to work.
Donald had just come back from Newmarket to join his dad and Red Rum was still alive, busy opening shops and clubs. Then in 1992, after speaking with Carl Llewellyn, who I’d known during our spell together at Tim Forster’s and by this time was working for Nigel, I moved to Naunton. Nigel was really getting going and it seemed the place to go. Those three trainers were very different but all highly respected professionals.
It has to be said the Captain, despite his pessimism, had a wonderful understanding with his many top staying chasers; it was great fun to be part of the McCain set-up, while Nigel was very positive and forward thinking, as he is today. All of them provided a variety of experiences for me, each one distinctive in their own way.
When you started training five years ago at Cilldara Stud, near Cheltenham, the pressures would cause you to lie awake at night. Now, during your best season with over 50 winners and a near 20% strike-rate, how tough do you find the job?
It was very difficult starting up after being at Nigel’s for 18 years. Having been a cog in a wheel I suddenly found I was the one that had to make the wheels go round. However involved I was at Nigel’s, at the end of the day I could go home and didn’t have to worry about a VAT bill or where the rent was coming from.
Once you start on your own you discover all those responsibilities rest on your shoulders, along with the actual training and making sure the owners are happy. I wouldn’t say I over- worry, though Paddy Brennan tells me I am hard to ride for because he knows how much I want it and that in turn puts a lot of pressure on him. But he means it in a good way.
It doesn’t matter to me whether it’s a point-to-pointer at Andoversford or a horse going to Cheltenham, you want them all to win. Anyway, once I got to grips with the job we had nearly 150 winners in our three and a half years at Cilldara.
Things really seem to have clicked this season. What’s the secret? And is there a part of you that wishes you had struck out on your own earlier?
There’s no secret as such. It’s a combination of factors: everyone has settled into Grange Hill Farm. I am lucky to have a good head lad, Kevin Brown, who worked with me at Nigel’s. Also my secretary/amateur Ally Stirling who was at Nigel’s and one of the first people to work for me when I started. We have better horses, and now that Paddy Brennan isn’t riding so much for Tom George he has become a great help behind the scenes.
My partner and assistant Sally Randell, who trained for herself at one stage, joined us full-time in September and brought some nice horses with her. There was never any thought of setting up on my own any earlier after those brilliant 18 years with Nigel. In any case, if I had I’d have missed Imperial Commander’s Gold Cup. I just felt it was time to move on when I did.
Having been a cog in a wheel I suddenly found I was the one that had to make the wheels go round
You have a prolific association with Paddy Brennan, who rides most of your horses. What makes him so good?
There is a great part of Paddy that the race-going public don’t see. He is very good at finding suitable races for certain horses and talking through races. His feedback is always informative and helpful. Sometimes he’ll come back in after finishing fifth or sixth and I’ll tell him if he’d got stuck in a bit more he could have been placed and that would have pleased the owners.
Invariably, his reply would be that the horse wasn’t enjoying itself so he didn’t knock it about because he was thinking of the future – and nine times out of ten he’d be proved right by a better run next time. He’ll never suggest a horse should run somewhere just to suit Paddy; it’s always what’s best for the horse.
Were your 18 years as a pivotal member of team Twiston-Davies like the ‘University of Life’ for you? How closely involved were you with his Grand National winners Earth Summit and Bindaree, and Gold Cup winner Imperial Commander?
I was 20 when I went there and it was a time when I was eager to learn everything about the job, about life generally and of course much more about racing. And the bonus for me was that Nigel was just getting going with about 40 horses, which quickly rose to 70 with more owners joining the yard.
I felt lucky to be part of what was a blossoming business and of course every day was a positive.
It was a great 18 years and I wouldn’t have wanted to have spent a minute less there. I had a lovely time seeing Nigel’s sons Sam and Willy grow up, being part of all that, and I still feel very close to them.
I was as involved with Earth Summit, Bindaree and Imperial Commander as much as any head lad/assistant could be. Nigel was away racing a lot, left me to it and we worked very well together. I still have lots of friends working for Nigel and it’s great to see him doing well. Gold Cup Day in March 2010 will never be forgotten as we had three winners.
Not only did Imperial Commander do his stuff, but 17-year-old Sam took a day off from school to win the Foxhunter on Baby Run and Paddy, fresh from Gold Cup glory, gave Pigeon Island a peach of a ride to win the Grand Annual Chase. We certainly had plenty to celebrate that night. Bindaree’s 2002 Grand National was right up there as well because everyone knew Nigel was thinking of retiring and that day at Aintree turned everything around.
As a teetotaller you must have been a useful driver to and from the races and any number of functions. But now as a trainer do you find you miss out on your owners’ winning celebrations?
When you’re Irish everyone thinks you’ve got a problem with drink, and I have never had a problem with being a teetotaller! I have never found a drink I like and when my partner Sally has one I might try it, but never enjoy it.
I used to and still do get invited to a lot of places I wouldn’t normally be asked to simply because they know I can drive them home. I can party with the best of them, enjoy our owners’ celebrations as well as any other gatherings. I’m as happy as everyone else, without a drink.
Your National hopes this month are likely to be carried by Perfect Candidate (11st) in the Grand National and Alvarado in the Scottish Grand National at Ayr. The former looks to have been trained for the race. How do you see their prospects?
There’s no point in moaning about going up 6lb, but that’s what happened to Perfect Candidate when he was given 11st after his Exeter win a couple of days before the National weights came out. You have to accept that it is what it is. But he’s a big horse and at the end of the day I don’t think it will make that much difference.
I have always thought of him as a National horse; he jumps and he travels, but he does need the run of the race, which might not always be easy in the National. Having said that, I do believe on his day he could be a player and this could be his year. After Exeter the plan was to go straight to Aintree, unless we felt he needed a spin over hurdles. Alvarado has been fourth in two Grand Nationals as well as second in last year’s Scottish National and he will be heading back to Ayr.
How do you go about reading the minds and freshening up horses that lose their way?
I wouldn’t claim to be any better than anyone else when it comes to encouraging horses back on the rails. I am very lucky to have local pre-training yards – under Jill Tate, Angela Slatter and Andrew Campbell – where the horses can be freshened up in a different environment away from their regular training routine. The Slatters have a farm so the horses can be ridden round the farm amongst the sheep, a typical change that can be as good as a rest for them.
Two years ago you moved back to your old stamping ground, at Upper Yard, Grange Hill Farm, Naunton as next door neighbour to the Twiston-Davies set-up. Do you have separate facilities or do you share the gallops?
We share the facilities. I rent my yard from Cathy Twiston-Davies and the gallops and schooling amenities from Nigel. When I came back here we didn’t really know how it was going to work, but it has. We have two gallops and when Nigel is on one I am on the other; he pulls out at 7.30am, my string pulls out at 7.45am and we don’t interfere with each other.
I feel as if I’ve grown up here, know the yard, the facilities and also the surrounding area, where we find the best places for road work and riding cross country to keep the horses fresh.
Would you ever advocate centralised training, which would surely make economic sense for owners?
No. When they are all in one place you get one horse sick and suddenly they’re all sick. Yes, they are a herd animal, but some don’t like being in massive herds, as they would be in crowded centralised training centres. I’ve had one or two that have come to me from Lambourn and they are different animals after about three weeks here. We turn them out a lot and they enjoy doing their own thing.
The profile of the Cheltenham Festival towers over the rest of National Hunt racing. Has it become too big at the expense of the rest of the season?
I don’t think so. It is our Olympics and that’s what we all aim for. If you have a bumper or novice winner in September or October, then Cheltenham in March is invariably top of the agenda. The Festival is a complete display of National Hunt racing, a terrific advertisement for our wonderful sport with all the best horses competing at the highest level in such a variety of steeplechases and hurdle races.
Perhaps it’s a bit different for us because we are only 12 miles from the racecourse. I equate both the Open meeting in November and the Cheltenham Festival with Christmas, a time we look forward to with family and friends coming over from Ireland for both meetings.
The French authorities’ introduction of a 4lb riding allowance for women riders this spring has prompted a lot of conjecture in England. Would such a move here be a good or bad idea?
It’s a great idea. I accept that Josephine Gordon, who I’m sure is very talented on the Flat, has spoken out against the idea. But if you put a top boy and a top girl on horses of the same ability the boy is always going to be stronger. That’s just genetics, nothing to do with sexism or being chauvinistic. It’s fact.
I think the girls should be jumping up and down looking for that 4lb riding allowance
Take someone like Lucy Alexander, a former champion conditional and phenomenal rider; I’m sure if someone gave her a 4lb riding allowance she’d grab it with both hands. I think the girls should be jumping up and down looking for that 4lb. You see a lot of women who ride well on the Flat, but when they lose their claim the rides dry up. I’d have thought if they can continue with a 4lb claim it would be a big help to their careers.
Which horse trained by you has given you the most pleasure, and why?
When I started training Dark Energy won five for us, including a £15,000 chase at Market Rasen, giving us all a lot of pleasure in those early days. Also Lord Landen, who is owned by a great bunch of people, and came to me rated in the 90s and managed to win at Cheltenham off 105. That was a phenomenal achievement for everyone involved. The owners are local from Bishop’s Cleeve so to have a winner at Cheltenham meant the world to them.
What are the plans for your exciting bumper horse Cap Soleil, now three from three after her Listed win at Sandown in March?
I’m very lucky to have Cap Soleil. For a four-year-old to do what she did at at Sandown, beating older fillies, is so exciting for the team. There’s a chance she could go to Aintree but it would need to be soft. Punchestown is more likely. Cap Soleil is very laid back and easy to train – the perfect woman!
Looking ahead, can you give us an exciting prospect from your yard and what plans you might have in mind?
I am looking forward to Pride Of Lecale coming back into training. He was a useful bumper horse last year when he picked up an injury, but I am expecting him to go on and make his mark. Global Stage and Out Of Style are two others I like. All three are very nice horses.